When Susan Storfa and her family moved into their house atop a bluff on Whitefish Stage Road, the view of Village Greens Golf Course, which sits below the house to the east, was obscured by trees.
“You could not see my house from down below,” she said last week.
Today, the large pines are gone, taken by a landslide in 2010, and the golf course and community are clearly visible below, framed by the dramatic Swan Mountains further to the east.
It’s a gorgeous view, but it’s disconcerting for the Storfas, who lost about two-thirds of their backyard property in the spring slide.
Thus began what would be a four-year effort to get a $400,000 slope stabilization mitigation grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would ensure the Storfas’ and five of their neighbors’ houses wouldn’t be the next to slide to the bottom of the bluff.
However, that effort was stalled March 26 after the Flathead County Commission voted to terminate the grant process. Commissioners Gary Krueger and Cal Scott said little before the vote, but in interviews afterward explained they were uncomfortable with the project, despite Flathead County not having to pay for any of the grant’s matching funds.
Commissioner Pam Holmquist was not present at the hearing.
For the commission, the concerns about the project come down to fears of being liable for any potential failings. For the homeowners, the sudden change in the county’s tone is confounding; the county’s Office of Emergency Services has been involved from the beginning and the commission authorized a search for engineering qualifications for the project in January.
“I’m very upset,” Storfa said after the meeting.
Erosion isn’t a new concern in Flathead County; each spring, many property owners keep keen eyes on river and groundwater levels, though major landslides are not a typical occurrence. There was a large slide south of the Storfa’s residence in 2010, when a section of the bluff above the Hillcrest subdivision in Evergreen collapsed.
After the Storfas’ back lawn slid, they pursued potential grants to help stop the slope’s downhill shift.
Susan Storfa said she contacted the Office of Emergency Services at that point, and OES deputy director Cindy Mullaney said she was in touch with the bluff homeowners about the slumping in 2010.
At that point, Storfa was trying to launch a project to stabilize her own backyard, but found she would need more than just one house in jeopardy to secure a public grant.
Then came the soggy spring of 2011, which caused statewide flooding and prompted a presidential declaration of disaster for Montana. Storfa saw a notice for FEMA meetings for homeowners, noting that the City of Kalispell had received a FEMA grant to fix Buffalo Hills Golf Course.
By the fall, Storfa was in touch with her neighbors and the people living below the bluff in the Village Greens community. They had their first meeting about the slope stabilization project in October 2011, and sent off a letter of intent to pursue a hazard mitigation grant on Dec. 21, 2011. Storfa said her group found its own grant writer for the project.
Flathead County is listed as the applicant on the letter, and the Office of Emergency Services is listed as the applicant on the final grant application. The grant makes note that the properties in question – six lots to the east of Whitefish Stage Road and west of Village Greens – are in both Flathead County’s and the City of Kalispell’s jurisdictions.
The bluff’s geologic components include clay and silt, and there has been development activity in the area since the 1970s, when the Mission Valley subdivisions started cropping up north of the properties listed in the grant application.
However, in recent years, the significant erosion events – landslides in at least two places, one behind Storfa’s house, and a smaller one behind the property two houses north of the Storfas’ – coupled with high groundwater levels and flooding on the Stillwater River have led to considerable sloughing.
“If unabated the annual erosion rate of the slope will catalyze catastrophic failure of six residences over the next three to eight years,” the FEMA grant application reads.
Tax appraisals put the collective value of these properties at over $1.4 million, according to the application.
The erosion has also added sediment to the six-acre storm water retention pond, which sits behind houses in the Village Greens community below the bluff. According to the grant application, the homeowners in Village Greens were also on board with the project.
The proposed project would construct safer slopes, provide adequate drainage to reduce the risk of flowing water removing more soil, restore the pond’s storm water capacity, repair damaged storm water pipes that were affected during the major slumping episodes, and reduce additional sources of water on the bluff.
FEMA approved the $400,000 grant last October, agreeing to pay $298,000, or roughly 75 percent of the cost, while the landowners provided the 25 percent match of $102,000. The county’s part would be administering the funds, acting as a facilitator.
The matching funds from the landowners are being held in escrow, Storfa said.
On Jan. 14, the commission authorized the publication of requests for qualifications from engineers for the project, and on Feb. 18, the commission opened the responses from engineering firms. They took those responses under advisement and forwarded them to a scoring committee with OES to consider.
Josh Smith, co-owner and engineer at CMG Engineering in Kalispell, has been involved in the project from its beginnings, and said federal and state agencies, including the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the state Department of Natural
Resources, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, agreed it is viable.
“At this point, for the county to say it’s not is surprising,” Smith said last week.
During the March 26 hearing, the commissioners offered little in the way of specifics about why they wanted to terminate the grant process. In an interview after the vote, Krueger said he had concerns about the county being on the hook for liability if the project fails.
“I’ve had liability concerns from the very beginning,” Krueger said. “I have concerns in that if something goes wrong, Flathead County will be held liable.”
While Krueger said no one has advised him legally or otherwise that the county could be held liable in this case, he maintained that he has not had anyone tell him the county doesn’t have liability in this case.
Scott also had liability concerns, saying in an interview after the vote that he didn’t want to set a precedent for the county “being in a position to cover the expense and potential liability for a few.”
Building in the corridor where the bluff is located has “always been” a risk, Scott said.
Smith, the engineer, said in an interview that any liability in the slope mitigation project would fall on the landowners, the contractors and the engineers, not the county.
Scott also said he didn’t feel there was proper communication about the project among county administrators; though OES has been involved from the beginning, other parts of the county were not, he said.
“One hand wasn’t communicating with the other,” Scott said.
Both Scott and Krueger noted the pursuit of the grant had been happening before either got in office – Krueger took office in 2013 and Scott took over the District 1 seat after Jim Dupont died in March 2012.
According to minutes from county commission meetings, then-OES director Scott Sampey discussed the grant in November 2011; the following Feb. 14, Mullaney told the commission the grant process was moving forward.
FEMA awarded the grant on Oct. 5, 2013 and the county was informed of it on Oct. 8. On Nov. 14, 2013, Commissioners Holmquist and Scott voted to accept the grant award, with Krueger voting against it.
By December, OES reported to the commission that the requests for proposals for engineering services on the project were being developed.
In an interview, Holmquist said she would have also voted to terminate the grant process had she been at the meeting on March 26, despite having voted to accept the grant award last winter.
“We got more information since the award,” Holmquist said. “We spent a lot of time on it, we just don’t feel that we should move forward with it.”
Storfa said she is angry about the March 26 decision, and confused about the lack of comment from the commission over its decision.
“If they had questions on an ongoing project, you would think they would ask,” she said.
At this point, there is an effort underway to see if the City of Kalispell would be willing to facilitate the grant, but Mullaney said she wasn’t sure if the grant could transfer between public entities.
Scott said he would be open to a partnership with Kalispell on this project, and Krueger said he believed Kalispell could be more involved because of the shared jurisdiction of the area.
If the grant can be transferred, work on the project must be completed by October 2016.
Todd Sharpe, who lives on the bluff two houses north of Storfa, said he is disappointed by the commission’s actions at the recent meeting.
“They had to go out of their way to stop the process,” Sharpe said. “We’ve got a lot of questions for our commissioners.”
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